A Tribute to Stephen H. Balch

Peter Wood

  • Article
  • January 12, 2009

Peter Wood, who became president of the National Association of Scholars at the beginning of this year, presented the following speech in honor of Steve Balch, NAS's founder and its president for nearly 22 years. This tribute was given on January 9, 2009, during the NAS national conference in Washington, D.C.

Stephen H. Balch

Dissenter, scholar, freedom fighter, constitutionalist. 

 Steward of dissent, shepherd of scholars, strategist.

Political pilgrim.

In 1964, fresh from an undergraduate degree awarded magna cum laude from Brooklyn College at America’s most enterprising university, you headed west to begin graduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley.  The timing was fateful, for you arrived at the time and in the place that a cultural epoch was about to begin. That October in front of Sproul Hall began a series of mass protests that would in time be known as the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. 

For some, the Free Speech Movement would become a magical moment when a world of new possibilities opened up and the romance of life truly began. The staid institution of the university, devoted to dull scholarship and determination to stay above the fray, could be liberated and turned into an instrument of popular power.  The Free Speech Movement was lighting a fuse, and today there are many who look back fondly from their perches amid the ruins and praise those who brought the dynamite. 

But not you. You were only twenty, but you looked on the mob commandeering the police cruiser as a soap box and saw something that all too few of your contemporaries recognized: a mob determined to overturn freedom in the name of freedom.   The protesters’ vaunted eloquence on behalf of their right to claim public space struck your ears as “coarse and crude,” and you recognized in their rhetoric not a refurbished call for ordered liberty but “vitriolic denunciation, broad-brush characterizations, and caricaturing” of their opponents.    You knew the matters were more complex than these protesters would allow, and you spied out the heart of the matter. Their tool was menace. They avowed non-violence, but, as you later put it, they “had mastered a clever way to use force to their ends” while denying it.   Above all, you had come to Berkeley out of a love of learning only to be confronted straight-off with a verbosity that “had nothing to do with academic discourse,” but was “simply the incitement of mobs.”

A chasm opened in American education that semester. It may have been visible only in the Berkeley faculty, between faculty members who voted to sanction the student protests as a legitimate demand for free speech and those who saw the stirring of an illiberal movement that would ultimately imperil academic freedom. But underground that chasm ran through the UC administration and, like a San Andreas Fault in American culture, through other colleges and universities. Eventually of course it entered into our mediations as a people on what we want from higher education: a slow institution self-encumbered with safeguards that enable it to pursue truth, or a fast institution that can rocket the nation to the social outcomes favored by some political factions. 

It would be far too much to say that in your early twenties you recognized these geologic shifts, but the history of a mind is surely as much a matter of intellectual dispositions as it is consciously apprehended thoughts. Your dispositions as a graduate student at Berkeley already indicated a built-in resistance to the allure of ideology.  While in a milieu where others indulged an ever-growing and sometimes savage anger at their own society, you recognized that in a hard and perilous world, American society offered an unusual degree of comfort and security. When others began to revile comfort and security themselves as unworthy, you turned your formidable skepticism to what exactly these life-on-the-edge existentialists had to offer by way of alternatives. 

You possessed from the first the considerable merits of clarity, caution, and the understanding that choices are necessary.  And you chose decisively the side of civilization, the side of deliberation, rational scholarship, and ordered liberty. 

You stayed at Berkeley through the 1960s, earning your master’s degree in political science and in 1972 your Ph.D. with a dissertation written under the direction of the illustrious Nelson Polsby on the shift in the United States Congress during the Wilson era from a speaker-centered system to the still-current committee system of governance.    This was the beginning of your lifelong interest in the inner workings of the legislative branch of our government.

Having seen the birth and then the unchecked spread of a new kind of demagoguery in higher education, you nurtured the idea that there were better ways to draw the connection between the life of the mind and the public weal. You had begun your professional career, teaching government at the University of San Francisco, at UC Berkeley, and then returning east, at Rutgers. But in 1972, you temporarily stepped aside from teaching to spend a year as a Congressional Fellow, interning first with Congressman Gillis Long, Democrat of Louisiana, and nephew to the share-our-wealth Kingfish himself, Huey Long.   Congressman Long took you to Louisiana and had you travel with him though his district that included some of the bayous of Cajun country, and you learned first-hand some of the ingredients that make up a Congressional gumbo. Your second post as a Congressional Fellow was with Senator William Proxmire, Democrat of Wisconsin, early opponent of the Vietnam War and scourge of many academic projects that received his Golden Fleece Award for wasteful public spending.   But that award had not been invented in 1973.

With your dissertation defense behind you, and having had an inside look at Congress, in 1973 you accepted an appointment as assistant professor of urban policy and programs at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. And the next year won an appointment as a tenure-track assistant professor of government at City University’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  Your path to tenure in 1979 was outwardly uneventful, but inwardly disquieting. You have spoken of yourself at the time as “restless and disenchanted,” and though loath to criticize John Jay College, your long-held idealism about the nature of higher education began to erode when faced with the realities of institutional life. You began to see that colleges and universities were more devoted to serving themselves than to advancing their missions. 

No doubt a great many academics have experienced a similar waning of confidence in the actual life of universities, but very few have scrabbled up the mountain of tenure then decided—as you decided—to put that life behind and to strike out to do something remarkably different. We are here today because you made that choice, and it is a matter of moment to us how you came to it. 

The first moment of turning came from an unlikely source. In the mid 1970s you read all the way through the Fontana Economic History of Europe, and were brought up short by the recognition that market economies are, on the whole, a very good thing. Perhaps this was an instance of ideas catching up with dispositions, for you had long felt the importance of a society’s capacity to provide security, and you declined to take for granted the privilege of living amidst what most of mankind would regard as abundance and prosperity. The Fontana Economic History underscored for you that these were achievements, not accidents, and that different decisions led to different outcomes. 

In effect, you turned your back once and for all on the deepest and most alluring component of the radical vision:   that markets are the enemy of a fuller, better, more just and fulfilling order. Did this make you a conservative? A neo-conservative?  You shy from such labels. It made you a dissenter from the growing orthodoxy of the academy and it gave you a new willingness to explore other forms of intellectual dissent. You began to read widely, in biology, philosophy, and literature. And in 1981 you came to Paul Hollander’s profoundly pessimistic book about Western intellectuals, Political Pilgrims. Hollander describes Western intellectuals such as Theodore Dreiser, Edmund Wilson, and Julian Huxley who traveled to the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s only to gush with enthusiasm for a murderous totalitarian regime; and he brought his account up to the American intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s who likewise sighed with admiration for murderous totalitarian regimes in Cuba and China. 

Look long into this fire, and you see nothing but the capacity of intellectuals to twist their minds in fawning approbation around almost any repugnance or any tyranny that announces itself as the next thing in humanity’s aspirations for freedom and justice. Hollander ends by saying that he has faint hope for the future, but he conjures out of his imagination an intellectual who, having read this long litany of the self-deluded conspiring to undermine their own society, will say, “I must act.” 

And you did. Hollander, you have said, conjured you up. This was your conversion. Hollander gave you the charge not to be passively acquiescent in the decline of Western civilization but to rise against it.

But how?  There was no instant answer, but you did find your way to an important alliance of European and American intellectuals who formed the Committee for a Free World, directed by Midge Decter, which included Irving Kristol, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Edward Shils. The Committee for a Free World was a magnet of sorts for academics who saw the need to oppose the Soviet Union at a time when revisionist views of the Cold War were popular on campus—views that posited a basic equivalence between Soviet communism and Western capitalism, or blamed the Cold War itself on irrational Western antagonism to socialist policy. 

With Midge Decter’s  encouragement, you founded in 1982 a spin-off group, the Campus Coalition for Democracy, which spoke directly to academics who were drawn to the neo-conservative vision of the Cold War. But this wasn’t quite the focus you were searching for. It presented a case for liberal society at large, but didn’t address in particular the devolution of the university into a near-monopoly of the illiberal left.  In conversation with members of the Campus Coalition for Democracy—members such as Herb London, Nelson Ong, Carol Iannone, Barry Gross, and Peter Shaw—a new idea began to emerge for an organization that would focus entirely on the academy.  Midge Decter helped by supplying a list of professors who supported the Committee for a Free World. It was a place to begin.

And in 1987 you founded the National Association of Scholars. Founding an organization is simple enough; founding a successful and durable organization is something else.  To create the NAS you needed to win the confidence of busy faculty members spread thinly across the United States. You learned to live in airline terminals, and in time visited 49 states in your efforts to build the organization. South Dakota remains your single no-fly zone. You have tramped through some 120 American airports and traversed the quads of campuses without number. 

The result was an organization that took off with a roar. In its early years, NAS was not quite alone in crafting a dissenting view of higher education. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute on the political right had been around since the 1950s. But NAS was clearly new and different. It represented a critique from deep within the academy by faculty members who possessed a comprehensive understanding of how the university had gone about betraying its basic values. The witness was too powerful to ignore. The NAs gained the attention of the press, and the academic Left seemed initially taken off guard. Its supremacy on campus hadn’t really been challenged in decades.  

Recalling the opening years of the NAS are a particular pleasure because what came next was not so glorious.  The years that followed, however, were the truer test of your leadership and your tactics. For the academic left soon found its response to the NAS criticisms—a response of ignoring the substance of those criticisms and caricaturing the NAS itself as a right-wing organization that deserved to be ignored. The flush of initial enthusiasm based on unrealistic hopes for a quick change in the academic order faded away. And while the NAS journal, Academic Questions, became a key voice of academic dissent, press coverage in the mass media began to decline. NAS was on the road to social marginalization.  And you confronted some hard choices. 

The essential choice you made was to make the National Association of Scholars into a Johnny Appleseed organization. You used it to create the American Academy of Liberal Education in 1992, as an alternative accreditation body focused on the liberal arts.   You helped to found the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. You played a key part in setting up alternatives to highly politicized scholarly associations, and so were born the History Society and the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics.  The NAS produced influential policy statements, such as the 1993 Sexual Harassment and Academic Freedom. It undertook independent research leading to scholarly reports, such as the benchmark 1996 report The Dissolution of General Education. And you undertook the long labor of fostering the creation of centers for the study of Western civilization, free institutions, and the American founding at colleges and universities around the country. You lent organizational assistance to the campaigns to rid first California and then other states of pernicious racial preferences. Most recently, and with no fanfare, you spent six years lobbying Congress to fund the campus centers you help to found, and in August, with the sponsorship of Congressman Petri and Senator Gregg, the American History for Freedom Act became law.

Those were the actions, as you frequently say, of a realist. They speak to an assessment of American higher education as by and large a lost cause for the current generation.  The departments that are little more than outposts of ideology—women’s studies, cultural studies, ethnic studies, area studies—are institutionalized. The radical anti-intellectual doctrine of “diversity” that prizes identity politics over academic standards has become embedded in university practice and defended by college presidents as a sterling ideal.  A vast subsidence has occurred on that fault line that first appeared in 1964. Today at all too many colleges we accept ideological conformity as adequate for a diploma. Never mind knowing something of substance about the world. We confer degrees for credulity and congratulate the recipients for their command of “critical thinking.” 

What does a realist do when confronted with this bleak picture and the rather abject inability of NAS to have staved it off?   A realist observes that a civilization isn’t necessarily forever. But we make choices. We have always made choices. Clearly some students, some faculty members, and some colleges continue to dissent.  Free inquiry isn’t altogether dead, though much of it has migrated from campus. Scholarship in the best sense will continue no matter how debased and bound with ideological litmus tests the journals have become.  A realist knows that victory isn’t around the corner, but neither is extinction. A realist thinks about the best ways to preserve the best of what is left and to enhance, if only a little, the conditions whereby something better can get a purchase on life.

No one that knows you would accuse you of jaunty optimism; no one who knows you well would fail to see the tough-minded determination to see it through. When President Bush awarded you the National Humanities Medal in November 2007, he commended you for your service to academic freedom, academic pluralism, and reasoned debate, and championed your efforts to rebuild some of the intellectual heritage that has been dismantled in recent decades. These weren’t small tasks. You didn’t content yourself with adding or subtracting pebbles from the beach. You sought instead to re-open ports and clear the sea lanes of pirates.  Not for nothing have you sought out old photographs of the Rough Rider, Teddy Roosevelt. You like his style.  You like his independence. And you have brought some of his spirit permanently into the National Association of Scholars. 

Steve, you founded the National Association of Scholars, built it member by member, affiliate by affiliate, edited its journal, and raised it to national prominence. It is the great investment and therefore gamble of your life. None of us can say for sure that we have preserved the crucial thing or advanced the cause of true freedom against the winds blowing—sometimes bellowing—in the opposite direction. But to have sided with the cause of civilization is something. Perhaps it is your monument. We hope it’s not your only monument. We would like to have the National Association of Scholars to be a permanent and glorious monument to all that you’ve achieved, and I’d like to thank you.

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